World Cup Preview: Pesky Greece looks to do damage in Group C

Greece's defender Jose Holebas controls the ball during a training session at the Estadio Louridal...

Greece's defender Jose Holebas controls the ball during a training session at the Estadio Louridal Baptista in Aracaju on June 8, 2014. (AFP PHOTO/ARIS MESSINIS)

Morris Dalla Costa, The London Free Press

, Last Updated: 11:35 PM ET

COLOMBIA

  • Best finish: Round of 16 (1990)
  • Appearances: 4
  • Marquee player: Teofilo Gutierrez (River Plate)
  • Oddsmakers say: 22/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Finished second in South American qualifying group

The skinny: Colombia’s soccer history has been colourful and volatile. The colourful includes Carlos Valderrama and Rene Higuita, two of the game’s most memorable players. The volatile part includes some of the nastiest in the game’s memory. Colombia was the original host of the 1986 World Cup. But three years before the event, the country realized it could not stage it due to political and financial reasons. Colombia asked FIFA to take it back. It was eventually held in Mexico. In 1994 Colombia, was considered a favourite to go deep into the tournament, but the team didn’t make it out of the group stages thanks in large part to an own goal against the United States by Andres Escobar. Upon his return to Colombia, the young defender was killed by a gambler. This 2014 World Cup gives Colombia a chance to forget all those underachieving tournaments and history by living up to its high expectations. Colombia is a team that can attack and score goals. Colombia rolled through the qualifying, earning 30 points from 16 matches. If the team can retain that edge, it makes the Colombians dangerous, especially with the tournament being held in South America. The key to its success was always going to be striker Radamel Falcao. They needed him to score goals, but unfortunately for Colombia, Falcao damaged ligaments in his left knee. The team was still willing to name him, even if only for games beyond the group matches, but he was never going to be healthy. It’s a difficult blow for Colombia, playing for the first time since missing the past four World Cups. If Falcao can’t play, a big burden will fall on the other Colombia scorer, Teofilo Gutierrez. Gutierrez partnership with Falcao in the South American qualifiers saw them score a combined 15 goals. Colombia has an experienced squad with many of its key players featured in the world’s top leagues. Fortunately for Colombia, their group is not among the strongest in the World Cup. Under coach Jose Pekerman, Colombia has moved into the top five in world rankings. This time, it could be at the World Cup where Colombia makes noise for all the right reasons.

IVORY COAST

  • Best finish: Group stage
  • Appearances: 2
  • Marquee player: Yaya Toure (Manchester City)
  • Oddsmakers say: 125/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Defeated Senegal 3-2 in two-game playoff.

The skinny: The world has been waiting for an African team to make an impact on the international stage. But it won’t be the Ivory Coast. Since Cameroon in 1994, only Senegal in 2002 and Ghana in 2010 have progressed beyond the Round of 16. Didier Drogba leads the Elephants, but at 36, there’s a question about how much is still left in the tank for the talented striker. It will be his final World Cup. Drogba has had a tremendous career, but he has played in a lot of games under pressure situations and his speed and strength — his most important assets — aren’t as evident as before. Drogba is often left on his own up front, but this World Cup, he hopes 26-year-old Roma striker Gervinho will lend a hand. In fact, he will need help from the rest of the strikers, too: Seydou Doumbia (CSKA Moscow), Kader Keita (Al Sadd), Salomon Kalou (Chelsea) and Bony Wilfried (Vitesse). Drogba’s and Gervinho’s success will rest on the ability of Manchester City midfielder Yaya Toure to continue the play that saw him finish strongly in the Premier League season in England. He has taken over as the man to lead the Elephants’ charge. The Elephants don’t have much luck in getting into easy groups. In 2010, they were grouped with both Portugal and Brazil, and 2006 had them with Serbia and Montenegro, Argentina and the Netherlands. This is no doubt not as deadly a group as those, but Colombia is the favourite while Japan and Greece have their own kind of strengths that will cause problems for Ivory Coast. With an aging roster, the Ivory Coast had better not fall behind in their games.

GREECE

  • Best finish: Group stage
  • Appearances: 2
  • Marquee player: Giorgos Karagounis (Fulham)
  • Oddsmakers say: 200/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Defeated Romania 4-2 in two-game, total-goal playoff.

The skinny: Ignore Greece at your peril. There is always a tendency to downgrade the Greeks because they aren’t flashy and don’t score a lot of goals. The danger, of course, is falling behind. While they’ve never been able to repeat their shock win at the European Championship in 2004, whenever the Greeks take the field, the opposition knows it’s going to be a long day of attempting to break down their defence. As they prove at almost every major tournament, they are tough to beat because they are organized in how they set up and they don’t step outside their comfort zone. It’s a team that recognizes its limitations while believing that nothing is impossible. Greece finished second on goal-differential in its qualifying group and then defeated Romania 4-2 in the playoffs, but the numbers speak to how difficult an opponent it can be. The Greeks posted an 8-1-1 record, scoring only 12 times in 10 qualifiers, but conceded just four goals. It tied Greece for the fewest goals given up in Europe. Under coach Fernando Santos, who will leave after this World Cup, the Greeks have been a little more open with their style of play, as their four goals in two playoff games indicate. But defence is still the key. They won five qualifying games by 1-0 scorelines. Greece has its share of experienced international players, tough nuts to crack.

Captain and seasoned midfield general Giorgos Karagounis remains the dominant figure in the Greek lineup, but forward Dimitrios Salpingidis will certainly have a part to play and provide Santos with a variety of attacking options. He can also call on the experience of Theofanis Gekas and Georgios Samaras. These players can attack when the plan is to attack. But if Greece doesn’t defend well, they can’t win. The youth in the Greeks’ lineup will be showcased by Konstantinos Mitroglou. The 25-year-old scored five goals in qualifying. Aside from all this, the blueprint will be little changed. Look for Greece to defend like crazy, wait for a break to score in the 85th minute, and then defend like crazy again.

JAPAN

  • Best finish: Round of 16 (2002, 2010)
  • Appearances: 4
  • Marquee player: Keisuke Honda (AC Milan)
  • Oddsmakers say: 150/1 to win the 2014 World Cup
  • How they got here: Won Asian qualifying group

The skinny: Japan represents a dangerous opponent for the other three teams in the group. It loves to attack and its fitness level allows it to run for 90 minutes. It’s strange that an Italian has brought this kind of system to Japan. Or maybe manager Alberto Zaccheroni is simply working with what he has. He has implemented a system that allows the Japanese to use their attacking talent from the back to front. That means opponents will likely see a lot of Shinji Kagawa. Kagawa has not seen as much playing time as expected with Manchester United but, then again, United had a disastrous year. When he was with Borussia Dortmund, Kagawa was much more effective. He is an intelligent player and has the ability to get into space. He will get a lot of freedom in the midfield. Kagawa will be driven as well — he was left off the 2010 squad that played in South Africa. The 25-year-old midfielder was stunned at the omission and wants to make up for lost time in Brazil. He’ll pair up with Keisuke Honda, who can conjure up moments of brilliance. He is a terrific dead-ball specialist who can make exciting things happen. The key to the kind of attacking soccer the Japanese play often is generated from their fullbacks. Yuto Nagatomo and Atsuto Uchida were impressive during Confederation Cup play even though Japan finished bottom of the group. Uchida is just coming off an injury, though. Can Japan play with the big boys? They can certainly run and pass. Size is always an issue, especially with high balls in the penalty area. They drew against the Netherlands and defeated Belgium in games played in late 2013. The Japanese will only get better at these major tournaments. While many of the players toiled in their domestic league heading into previous World Cup tournaments, many top Japanese are now playing in stronger European leagues. The better competition will eventually reflect with the national team. While the Japanese might not make it to the second round, the teams in their group will be worn out after playing them.


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